Bringing Women on Board(s) to Create ‘Women-Friendly’ Workplaces

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the article.

While debates on bringing more women onto companies’ boards have raged for many years, they have really gained traction since the early-2010s. Arguments in favour of gender-diverse boards generally focus on the business case or justice and equality. My article draws attention to another important but often overlooked benefit: the creation of more ‘women-friendly’ workplaces.

The ‘Trickle-Down’ Benefits of Women on Boards for Other Women

Studies have shown an association between gender-diverse leadership teams and higher pay among other women in the organisation, as well as smaller gender wage gaps and less gender segregation. Women in board and executive positions can provide direct opportunities for other women, such as mentoring and access to networks. But even women further down the company who have no direct contact with the company’s leadership team can benefit. Research has shown that women in leadership influence the establishment of ‘women-friendly’ company policies and cultures, such as action against workplace sexual harassment, policies to reduce the gender wage gap, and flexible working arrangements.

Crucially, it is a higher share of women in the very top board and executive positions, and not just management more generally, that matters. Women in top management are more likely than those in lower-level positions to have the bargaining power to negotiate changes in the firm. The specialised skills, knowledge, and experience required for board and executive positions make women in these positions hard to replace, attractive to competing businesses, and expensive to lose.

Women on boards also provide a conspicuous symbol that women are valued by the organisation. In addition, their high visibility provides a powerful counterpoint to (unfounded) negative gender stereotypes around leadership, such as still widespread beliefs that women are ‘too nice’ and agreeable to be effective leaders. Yet, experimental studies have shown how seeing others ‘like them’ at the top can boost women’s career aspirations through a female role model effect.

Implications for Social Policy Analysis

So, what does all this mean in a social policy context? Social policy has traditionally been concerned with reducing risks to individuals’ welfare including unemployment, disability, sickness and old age. But as feminists have rightfully argued, this definition overlooks risks that undermine women’s wellbeing, such as difficulties balancing employment and family responsibilities, financial dependence on a partner, and sexual harassment.

Workplaces have a role to play in providing protection against these gendered risks. Such policies as flexible working arrangements can support women to balance paid work and family responsibilities and may lead men to take on more domestic work. Smaller gender pay gaps can reduce the financial reliance of women on a male partner, helping to secure women’s autonomy. As #MeToo has highlighted, sexual harassment remains widespread, which upholds male domination of and control over women’s bodies and can even force women out of their jobs. But research has shown that female board members may act as protagonists in sexual harassment cases and get organisations to take women’s claims seriously, possibly because they are more likely to have experienced harassment themselves and to see harassment behaviours for what they are: degrading, disenfranchising, and sometimes frightening.

All this suggests that bringing more women onto boards can contribute to reducing gendered social risks through cultivating women-friendly workplace cultures and policies.

The Role of Gender Boardroom Quotas

Consequently, the spread of legislation targeting the lack of women on boards is arguably an important part of the ‘regulatory welfare state’ designed to protect against social risk, fulfil welfare goals, and correct illegitimate inequalities through government interventions in the behaviours and actions of companies. In this vein, some countries have introduced compulsory quotas requiring companies to achieve gender-diverse boards or face penalties. In Norway, these go as far as dissolving non-compliant companies.

Gender quotas are often criticised as unmeritocratic, as giving women an ‘unfair advantage’, and even as patronising. But there is a strong case for them. Although anti-discrimination legislation prohibits firms from excluding women from selection processes for top jobs, that does not mean they will be included. For instance, candidates for board and executive roles are mostly selected through informal networks and contacts. While not designed to discriminate, a side-effect is that women’s weaker connections to informal networks compared with men can mean they are excluded from recruitment pools. In addition, gender stereotypes can lead hiring committees to perceive women less favourably for leadership positions than men, regardless of women’s actual skills, qualifications and experience. Since these stereotypes are so deeply engrained, they can affect our judgements often without us realising or intending them to. But by requiring the deliberateinclusion of women, gender boardroom quotas are – alongside broader changes – can help break down some of these ‘invisible barriers’.

Reflecting the ambivalence towards quotas, the UK and other countries have so far resisted pressures from the European Union to introduce them in the boardroom. Instead, the UK has opted for a ‘soft’ approach, introducing a voluntary target ofone-third of board members to be women across the 350 largest companies by the close of 2020.

But despite significant progress, recent figures suggest that FTSE 350 companies are set to miss the 2020 target. Does that mean we need compulsory quotas to achieve a ‘critical mass’ of women on boards? In future research, I aim to answer this question through an analysis of 23 advanced economies. Preliminary results suggest that compulsory quotas are the most effective approach as they have achieved success across a wide range of contexts, from Italy and Spain to Norway and France.

That said, the voluntary approach can work under certain circumstances, namely when adequate family policies are in place and legislation concerning the hiring and firing of staff is not too strict. So, we have seen success with voluntary targets in Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

Yet, in the UK, where family policies remain underdeveloped, progress towards gender-diverse boards has stalled. Consequently, we are unlikely to see any trickle-down benefits for other women of gender diversity at the top of companies any time soon.

About the author

Helen Kowalewksa is a Postdoctoral Research Officer at the University of Oxford.


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